Specialists Trace Telephone Overbillings
NEWARK, N.J. (AP) _ The breakup of American Telephone & Telegraph Co. and the emergence of competing long-distance phone companies has produced a more complex billing system for Americans - increasing the possibilites for errors.
The change is especially troublesome for businesses and government agencies, which have large phone systems, and that has spawned a growing band of sleuths who ferret out overcharges that can exceed hundreds of thousands of dollars.
″It’s basically a recordkeeping failure,″ said James A. Bell, East Coast manager for Sears Communications Co., one of the consultants that contracts to search for telephone billing errors.
With so many levels of telephone bureaucracy to go through before a customer’s order is carried out, the request sometimes is not transmitted accurately. ″None of this is done maliciously,″ he said.
As an example of the problem, Bell said his office found more than $50,000 in overcharges for a New Jersey hospital he declined to identify.
James Carrigan, a spokesman for New Jersey Bell Co., estimates that such errors make up only a small percentage of the 3 million bills his company sends out each month.
Nonetheless, the concept of hiring a consultant is catching on, especially since many are paid only from refunds on any overcharges they find.
In northern New Jersey’s Essex County, officials learned they had been overcharged by $218,000 for the telephone system in the court complex.
The error was discovered after employees at Ronald Chernow Communications Services Inc. spent a few months looking over the equipment and the bills, said Rona Parker, an aide to the county executive.
She said the county was so pleased with the results that it is thinking of hiring a consultant for other county offices.
Chernow said the breakup of the Bell System had produced communications problems between AT&T and the local phone companies.
He recalled a case in which a New York company moved to New Jersey and paid a ″mileage″ charge for keeping its old number. But the company still was being billed for a switchboard that no longer existed.
The telephone company wanted to send an employee to verify that the equipment was not there, but the building had been replaced with a parking lot, Chernow said.
″The larger the company or organization in terms of telephones or lines, the bigger the errors,″ said Frederick Jaworovich, founder of Telecom Solutions Group, another phone consultant.
He said the problem is compounded because the bills are too complicated for the average customer to decipher.
One of the most common errors is for businesses and governments to be billed for service or equipment that is not there or that has been disconnected.
Another common error is for a customer to be billed incorrectly because the wrong code is typed into a computer.
Occasionally, underbillings are discovered through the consultant’s investigation.
Although one consultant said he does not turn over such information to the telephone company - ″nobody hired us to do that″ - Carrigan said any undercharges usually are discovered when the telephone company reviews the evidence the consultant submits.
Sometimes, Chernow said, no errors are found. But he added, ″We make money on most of our accounts.″
The concept, however, does not appeal to all potential customers.
Alan Armitage, director of communications for New Jersey’s Hunterdon County, said county officials were considering hiring such a consultant until they decided to buy instead of lease their own equipment.
Under the terms of a proposal submitted by a consultant, the county would have had to continue paying a percentage of the overcharges to the consultant for at least a year after any overcharges were found.
Carrigan at New Jersey Bell said errors are most likely to occur in a large, complex account in which there are many changes, such as the addition or deletion of telephones or a new location for the equipment.
″We have no objection if they want to pay for them,″ Carrigan said of the use of the consultants. ″It’s not to our advantage to overcharge.″
If the telephone does not offer competitive rates and services, he said, customers ″may decide to use someone else’s services or bypass our network.″